Ben Cox

Ben Cox urges residents at Cornerstone Church during a Ward 5 meeting to support his agri- wedding” venture.

Residents in Ward 5 asked their next city councilor to fix policing issues and stop big development, and called for a partisan ceasefire during a ward meeting Thursday night.

Councilor-elect Rarchar Tortorello called the meeting and invited a property owner who intends to develop an “agri-wedding” wedding venue at 72nd Avenue and Tecumseh Road. Tortorello hosted the meeting at Cornerstone Church, and promised to hold monthly ward gatherings throughout the jurisdiction to hear grievances and work toward solutions.

Tortorello and councilor-elect Ward 3 Kelly Lynn will be sworn in next Tuesday to begin their two-year term.

The buzzing topic in the room was the wedding venue, as residents kept asking Tortorello what he would do to stop it. He urged residents several times that if they opposed it or had concerns, they could speak with owner Ben Cox and come to the Aug. 12 Planning Commission meeting.

An agri or farm wedding is an open air, rustic-themed wedding trend fueled by couples with a limited budget, several wedding planner websites reveal. Cox told residents the intention is to create small, intimate weddings.

Cox tried to negotiate with residents on concerns like potential noise, excess traffic on the narrow road and hours of operation for the venue. He did not promise that clients would not be allowed to bring alcohol, although the venue will not provide food and beverages.

He pointed out that the venue would be placed on his property away from the furthest residence, and while zoning and special use permit guidelines limit the venue to 300 occupants, he said he only planned to accommodate 200.

He also said he will install a 67-space parking lot and plant flowering trees and colorful blooming plants. He would be allowed to host events four days a week, according to guidelines.

The meeting tone shifted to politics. One resident argued with Tortorello about the presence of partisan issues on his official Facebook page.

Among various non-political posts, Tortorello’s page shows recent entries promoting First and Second Amendment rights, oppositional views on critical race theory and a post reading, “Leftists don’t compromise; they see your compromise as a sign of weakness.”

“You represent me and whatever percent didn’t vote for you,” the unidentified resident said, “and it’s important for me to know that you’re not going to call us out and insult us on your official page. How can I trust that you honestly represent me?”

Tortorello said he had conversed with her about the matter before in private and spoke about freedom of speech and the nature of social media.

“Social media is social media,” he said. “I see things I don’t like from the mayor and I ignore it, but I see your point. I wrote an article in January about healing the divide in Norman. I got support from the conservative side and killed from the other side because they don’t want to see that.”

“I’m from the other side, and I want to see that,” she said.

“If I disagree with someone, it’s about policy, but I can get along with anybody, and personally I’ve shown that,” he said.

Tortorello said he met with Mayor Breea Clark after the election, and what was supposed to be a meet-and-greet ended up lasting more than two hours. After both posted a photo of their gathering, he said the two both received harsh partisan criticism for it.

Some defended him Thursday, saying the “leftist council” started the partisan fighting by bringing national issues to the dais. These residents were critical of the council’s June 2020 decision to reallocate $865,000 of an increase to the police budget into community programs.

“I will say that I agree there should not be politics on a city page,” another resident said. “I will say, speaking in your defense, that is very, very difficult when we’ve got the left wing ruining this city. They’re cramming a national agenda down our throats which much of the city doesn’t agree with.

“So, I do think on a page we’d be better leaving politics out, but it’s hard when you’ve got some radicals on the city council to upset our life.”

Tortorello said he took into consideration all that was said about the matter. Another resident said she needed to know where he stood on the 2021 presidential election after word spread that he was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. She asked if he had faith in the electoral process.

Tortorello said he was in a hotel room “during all that nonsense,” and was there to support then-President Trump.

“Mr. Biden is now the president. End of story,” Tortorello said.

Police response times and the need for increased patrol in the sprawling rural ward was also a concern residents raised.

Tortorello said he has had regular meetings with Norman Police Department Chief Kevin Foster, and said response is based on 911 calls. He encouraged residents to report crime by calling 911 as he continues to explore solutions with the NPD.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.

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